Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance

By Erica Dhawan
St. Martin’s Press, 2021
Hardcover: 267 pages

Review by Emily Carney, SWE Editorial Board

When I started at a new company with a “video on” meeting culture, I looked for resources to improve my presence on camera. The title of Erica Dhawan’s latest book, Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, attracted my attention. While sitting up straight, making eye contact, and avoiding crossing one’s arms are common suggestions to improve one’s appearance, to my surprise, how we appear on digital media is only a fraction of our digital body language.

Digital body language is the system of how we approach and interact with digital media. In the digital world, our body language includes how we email, text, instant message, and participate in virtual meetings. The messages we convey and receive depend on the method of communication, the timing of our responses, and the structure of our communications. “You see, these days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk,” writes Dhawan.

Digital Body Language is divided into three sections: describing the digital elements of style, explaining principles of effective digital communication, and recognizing digital body language across differences.

Comparing “digital” to “traditional”

Communicating effectively in the digital world requires digitizing traditional communications methods. For example, in “traditional body language,” tilting your head to the side is an indication that you are listening attentively, while in “digital body language,” it is recommended to show your engagement by “liking” a text message or commenting in the chat of a virtual meeting. Even emojis have a role in professional communications. While traditionally you might smile with your co-workers, working online requires us to express emotions through emojis and exclamation points.

According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Kruger et al. 2005), the tone of our emails is misinterpreted 50% of the time. Effective digital communication requires us to be deliberate about the words we use and the signals we send. Do you react differently when you get an instant message from your manager than when you receive an email? Choice of medium is a signal of priority. The amount of time it takes to respond is a signal of respect. Inclusion is demonstrated by To, Cc, Bcc, and Reply all. Emotion is a combination of punctuation and signals. Weaving all this together is your digital persona.

How to connect when we are different

Some of the most jarring work experiences occur when we receive responses to communications that are different from what we expect. For example, when you send a chat to a co-worker that says, “Good morning!” and you receive “hi” back, how do you feel? If a lowercase “hi” is your co-worker’s typical style, you’ll continue your conversation; however, if you are working with someone new, you might perceive the “hi” to be dismissive or disinterested. Maintaining effective digital body language requires us to take a few extra moments to ask ourselves if our words might be misinterpreted. Similarly, switching mediums, which is known as “channel switching,” might be convenient for the sender, but could cause alarm for the receiver.

We each have a unique framework of digital preferences; your preferred style is not everyone else’s. For best results, we need to remind ourselves to be humble and open-minded. Dhawan proposes four laws of digital body language: value visibly, communicate carefully, collaborate confidently, and trust totally. Each section includes reflection questions and actionable tips. These principles apply no matter how fast our communication technologies evolve. Dhawan also identifies biases that we might encounter across gender, generation, and culture.

While sitting up straight, making eye contact, and avoiding crossing one’s arms are common suggestions to improve one’s appearance, to my surprise, how we appear on digital media is only a fraction of our digital body language.

Building your digital persona

While I am still searching for better tools to position my video camera, I now understand that digital body language is more than how you look on the screen. I’m taking small steps to adjust my digital persona. I started modifying my use of ellipses, which Dhawan describes as the “most passive aggressive punctuation mark,” when I learned they can convey hesitation, confusion, and sarcasm to some audiences.

For Dhawan, writing Digital Body Language began as an effort to alleviate professional confusion and frustration. Through her research, she revealed that clear communications benefit everyone from managers to family members and create environments where our best ideas can shine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erica Dhawan is a writer, keynote speaker, trainer, and entrepreneur. Named by Thinkers50 as “The Oprah of Management Ideas,” she led a mega session at WE20 and a professional development workshop for SWE in May 2021.

Emily Carney (she, her, hers) is a human and organizational performance lead with the Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. She graduated from Tufts University with a B.S. in environmental engineering and an M.S. in engineering management. Carney currently serves on the SWE editorial board.

Reference:
Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., and Ng, Z.-W. (2005). Egocentrism over E-mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89(6): 925–936.

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